If your church closed it’s doors, would the community around you miss it?
This question, and the many variations of it, is exceptionally popular in the ministry world. It’s been rumored to have originated with one of several famous pastors – I’m not sure who was first to use it in public. It’s prevalent in the world of church planting: “You want to plant the kind of church that five years in the community would miss if you weren’t there anymore.” It’s used in church revitalization circles, often to attempt to move a dying congregation into action in their community: “Right now, if we were to close the doors of this church, the community wouldn’t even miss us. Let’s work together to change that!” It makes for an excellent rallying cry and a very useful tool for inspiration and motivation.
But I don’t believe it’s a biblical question to ask. Or to put it another way, I think the way this question is commonly used tends to put the church onto a trajectory that is not mandated or modeled in the Scriptures.
I could be wrong, but I can’t find an example of this being a goal of any New Testament church. I’ve read Acts over and over, but I can’t find it. The closest I can come up with is the fact that Acts 8:8 says there was much joy in Samaria because of Phillip’s ministry of exorcism and healing. But the ministry of Phillip does not equal the ministry of a local church. In addition, when this question is asked today I have not heard anyone use it to spur a church on towards engaging the community with miraculous healings and casting out of demons. I’ve read the epistles over and over, and I can’t find one instance of an apostle telling elders in a city to make this their goal. I can’t find one call to a local body of believers to make their congregations so appealing and winsome to the unbelieving city around them that the city would miss them if they were gone.
Instead, we see examples of unbelieving cities hating the proclamation of the gospel. Believers are persecuted and scattered. As people come to faith in Christ, the economic systems of cities are challenged as idolatry is no longer a lucrative market. As the gospel goes out idolatry is challenged and hour long riots break out. None of this seems to match the description of “the community would miss the church.” As a general rule, unbelievers are quite happy to have the proclamation of Law and Gospel be dispensed with as soon as possible. They’re not asking for it or missing it when it’s no longer there.
My fear is that this question puts an unnecessary burden on pastors that has no root in Scripture. Rather than stay focused on the ministry of the Word, they believe that in order to have a fruitful ministry in a community they must make the church something that the community loves. They give their time to hosting block parties, producing top-of-the-line drama presentations, organizing huge Easter egg hunts, and putting on Fall Festivals. Often these community events have little-to-no gospel focus, and are seen as simply ways to bring the church into the goodwill of the community, and perhaps build relationships that may one day lead to the gospel being presented. Maybe.
Other times, pastors trying to earn the affection of the community by rallying a small army for community service projects. One church growth expert said in a recent book, “Plan weekly practical deeds out in the community. It doesn’t really matter what these events are as long as they: bless the people you’re helping, bless the city, and provide visibility for your church. Notice that the church must get credit for being a blessing; do not do anything anonymously.” Doesn’t sound quite like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, does it?
The truth is, a church may be completely faithful. They may be boldly proclaiming the gospel during Sunday worship, to hundreds throughout the city on street corners and one-on-one over cups of coffee in a local Starbucks. They may be loving one another, meeting each other’s needs in practical ways, demonstrating the character and love of Christ in their day-in, day-out interactions with one another. They may be faithfully administering the sacraments and prayerfully exercising church discipline. They may be making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded… and the community may not even know they exist. Or they could be completely apathetic to the church’s existence. Or further still, the community may hate them and wish they weren’t there. It really doesn’t matter – Jesus loves this church, and is well-pleased with their faithful service to Him.
What do you think? Am I missing something? Am I off the mark? I’d love to hear your thoughts…